February: A Month to Celebrate

By Xixëllonjë Nebihu

College of Education

SUMMARY: At JMU, Black faculty members have significantly impacted our community in meaningful ways.

Since 1976, every President of the United States has recognized February as Black History Month. Other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have also dedicated this month to commemorate Black history.

At JMU, Black faculty members have significantly impacted our community in meaningful ways. I had an opportunity this month to talk with Drs. Joanne Gabbin, Leonard Richards and Mary Beth Cancienne. I have chosen to highlight them and their extraordinary contributions in Honor of Black History Month.

Dr. Gabbin, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center and Professor of English, began her education in Baltimore City Public Schools, where she attended a segregated elementary school before transitioning to an integrated school. After high school, she received her Bachelor's degree in English from Morgan State College (today, known as Morgan State University). She completed her Masters and PhD from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Richards earned a Bachelor's degree in 2012 from JMU, majoring in history with minors in secondary education, African Studies, and interdisciplinary social science. In 2013, he earned a master's degree in education from JMU. After college, he taught social studies at Waynesboro High School (WHS) for seven years. Due to leading several diverse student groups and his outstanding teaching record, Dr. Richards was named Teacher of the Year in 2016 and 2018. Currently, Dr. Richards is a faculty fellow working in the Middle, Secondary, and Mathematics Education department in the College of Education. He recently received his Ed.D. in Leadership and Learning in Organizations from the Peabody School at Vanderbilt University.

Dr. Gabbin, who is retiring at the end of this year, has had many accomplishments; She fondly notes, "Here at JMU, I am proudest of my work in developing the Furious Flower Poetry Center in 2005 and my work in growing the honors program."  She adds, "The Furious Flower Poetry Center is devoted solely to Black poetry." She talks about how she started the Furious Flower Poetry by inviting Gwendolyn Brooks to the very first conference. Brooks' poem "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" inspired the name, and the Furious Flower Poetry Center originated in 1994. This center promotes the emergence of a new generation of poets: It is a living center.

In celebrating Black History Month, Dr. Gabbin shared that she has had many people in her life who inspired and influenced her; Some of them are Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling A. Brown, and many others. Her mother, Jessie Smallwood Veal, from whom she inherited her love for reading, was her biggest role model as she introduced her to reading. Another influential figure in her life was Morgan State College's Public Information Specialist, who recognized her writing abilities.

Dr. Richards notes that President Barack Obama is a source of inspiration to him because of how he dealt with problems publicly and privately as the first African-American President. Next, Dr. Richards like Dr. Gabbin, was quick to identify his parents as his role models. He fondly says of them, "They taught me how to be a Black person in this society and to navigate it while remaining true to myself." He adds, "And I will pour this into my children."

When asked about Black History Month, Dr. Gabbin recalls its history. She says, "When I hear, first of all, Black History Month, I think about Carter G. Woodson, who was the founder of the concept, first of Black History Week, and then it was expanded to Black History Month. He believed that the history of Black people should not be erased. Dr. Gabbin adds, "If you ignore the history of our people, you erase our people." Likewise, Dr. Richards shares his thoughts on Black History month, He says, "You will not have America without Black Americans. And this is not to say that our story is better than any other story; Our story is riddled with triumph and tragedy." People's stories should be celebrated every day. They should be represented in the schools and our communities. He continues, "It shouldn't be just one month where we decide to recognize the accomplishments of so many great individuals. We all play a part in history." 

Many Black people have played important roles throughout history. Dr. Gabbin notes some civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Malcolm X. These were all people who risked their lives to fight for social justice, political freedom and economic equity for all. When we talk about Black people who held leadership positions at JMU, Assistant Dean Lillian Jennings, the first Black professor to hold this position in the College of Education, comes to mind. Dr. Gabbin shares how Assistant Dean Jennings was one of many Black professors at JMU in 1974.

When asked about her experience on being a Black scholar in the English department at JMU, Dr. Gabbin states, "It is an honor to be in a position to do this kind of work, to devote your life to learning; I think it is a privilege that few people have, and I count myself as blessed that for all these years, for 51 years I have taught, and I have been able to impact the lives of young people, and I have been able to share what I have learned with them. I think Black literature is a necessary part of American literature because it completes the picture of what it means to be living in American history and living through American history and culture."

Dr. Richards also shares his experience of being a Black scholar. He states, "Being a Black scholar is more than just being a teacher of direct instruction. It means that you're a learner in all aspects, whether it's service, whether it's academia; It's a place where you are not only able to learn but also able to teach your blackness with other people."

Dr. Cancienne, a Professor of English Education in the College of Education, joined JMU in 2005 and has collaborated with Dr. Gabbin on various projects. She states, "I met Dr. Gabbin in 2005 when I first arrived at JMU during a faculty event, and she has been a mentor and significant influence in my career since that time." Since 2005, Dr. Gabbin and Dr. Cancienne have collaborated to teach and inspire middle and high school English teachers to teach Black poets. Recent collaborations include teaching an X-labs course titled "Innovating the Archive: Furious Flower at JMU X-Labs." Other collaborations include presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English conference. Dr. Cancienne claims, "Working with Dr. Gabbin for so many years, I view my role as the unofficial College of Education liaison to the Furious Flower Poetry Center."

Dr. Cancienne posits that Black History honors Black Americans who have led throughout history in all areas of our society. She writes, "As an English education methods instructor, I work with English education candidates to teach African American authored writers to high school students, especially focusing on the Furious Flower poets. In addition, because of the significance of Black writers in American literature, I include the teaching of Black authors throughout the year in all courses that I teach." It is a privilege to have faculty members like Drs. Gabbin, Richards, and Cancienne at JMU. Let's all come together to celebrate this month and appreciate everyone's achievements.

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Published: Friday, February 25, 2022

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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